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Auto Safety Bill Takes Some Bruises in the Senate; Automakers Try for More

Public Protections

The Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010 (H.R. 5381/S. 3302), the primary legislation on the table in response to the Toyota unintended acceleration fiasco, went through the committee process in the House and Senate earlier this summer. The bills, as introduced, included some tough provisions to respond to gaps exposed by the Toyota episode.

Among important reforms included in the bills currently:

  • More public access to NHTSA’s early warning information database;
  • standards for accelerator control and brake override;
  • a standard requiring redundant systems to ensure vehicle electronics are robust;
  • mandatory event data recorders;
  • significantly increased civil penalties;
  • penalties to hold corporate officials civilly liable for submission of false, misleading or incomplete information to NHTSA;
  • restoration of federal judicial redress if people believe NHTSA has illegally denied their defect petition; and
  • a needed increase in funding for NHTSA.

But as the bills move through the legislative process, industry lobbyists have worked to weaken them. In the Senate, some weakening has already taken place, including:

  • Making a rule to standardize pedal placement discretionary and dependent on a National Academy of Sciences study;
  • pushing back or eliminating deadlines for NHTSA to issue rules for the brake override standard and implementation of mandatory event data recorders;
  • capping civil penalties at $300 million (a revised House bill has even capped them at $200 million);
  • reducing penalties for making false statements from $50,000 per day and a $250 million maximum to $5,000 per day and $5 million maximum;
  • dropping additional data recording requirements for event data recorders, and making data collection on rollover crashes discretionary; and,
  • reducing disclosure requirements for early warning data and meetings between NHTSA and manufacturers regarding recall decisions.

Now the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, auto manufacturers, suppliers and dealers recently sent a letter to House and Senate Committee chairs, Henry Waxman and John Rockefeller, asking to further weaken the bill. One provision industry interests want to see removed is a requirement for NHTSA to make more early warning reporting information public. It's that very data that could have helped public interest groups spot a problem like Toyota's earlier on.

The July 15 letter perversely suggests that the proposed $300 million penalty for automakers who delay informing the agency of a potentially dangerous defect would result in more guarded communication between automakers and the agencies. Toyota was penalized $16.4 million for not providing NHTSA with information that would have led to a timely recall related to sticking pedals – the maximum penalty under the current law.

Other key provisions the auto industry seeks to remove from the auto safety legislation are the appeals process for defect petitions. That process would allow parties that have petitioned NHTSA to seek judicial review of agency determinations whether to open defect investigations. In the past, NHTSA has often denied defect investigation petitions, citing insufficient resources.

A remedy to this problem is also opposed by the auto industry – the House bill includes a $9 vehicle safety user fee that would apply to each new vehicle that complies with safety standards. This nominal fee would generate revenue to finance NHTSA’s activities and allow the agency to devote more resources to vehicle safety research independent of the auto industry. Due to insufficient funding, the agency has historically relied on the industry to support safety research efforts.

Opportunities for the kind of reform the House and Senate have set out to do at an agency like NHTSA are rare. The reforms contained in the House reported version of the bill will push the agency to make some important improvements, like investing in more engineering staff to ensure the agency can independently evaluate industry claims about the safety of vehicle electronics. The efforts of the auto industry to weaken the bill represent cynical disregard for the obvious failures of Toyota and NHTSA to adequately address problems in vehicles that killed dozens of people and put many others at serious risk.

Public Protections

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